I’m reminded today that we’re all in this alone, that our pain is our own and that no one else can help us by taking part of our pain for us.
Don’t panic. It’s not as if there’s no hope at all. And this isn’t even a “woe is me, the pain is unbearable” sort of post. Me, I’m fine. I’ve gone through the darkness and came out the other side. Then I went back in and came out the other side again. And on and on. No one said this would be a one-shot deal, did they? I’ve managed to create a pretty happy psyche, all things considered.
But it wasn’t always so. And I’m only going to tell this as a reminder that emotional pain is rarely terminal in itself, and that it can be overcome. It can be dispersed. It can be clobbered to smithereens.
I’m not sure what a smithereen is, but I’ve long thought I should use the term, and it seems fitting for this.
When I was at the impressionable age of maybe 12 I thought life was hopeless. There was no place in it for me. My existence had been an accident, and the people I now found myself surrounded with did not care for me much. It was nothing personal. I didn’t know that of course. At that age everything’s about the self. Or maybe I’m thinking of the age of five. Whatever. I was desperate for attention, any attention, even just to prove that I existed.
Oh sure, I existed. I had household chores, so I’m pretty sure everyone knew I was there. But internally, I felt unloved, unwanted, unliked, unnoticed, and I wanted people to notice me.
I was not a particularly bright child. Oh, I was, most certainly, in matters of learning and intellectualism and knowing things and the ability to impress my teachers. But I mean emotionally. Emotionally I was a bit dull. One can’t have everything, can one?
One day I took a bottle of my Dad’s Excedrin, and I downed the contents. It was at least half a bottle, maybe more, maybe three-fourths. This is, for those of you who are wondering, an exceptionally stupid thing to do at any age. Stick with the recommended dosage please.
Did I receive any attention for my stupidity? Did my attempt elicit any sort of reaction from anyone?
Well, of course not. If you take a bottle of Excedrin and don’t tell anyone, it’s not going to have the slightest affect on anyone. It will, I’ll have you know, make your stomach bleed.
But it’s internal, so it’s not like anyone knows. And there I was, having done something monumentally stupid, and I couldn’t tell anyone. They already thought of me as the family idiot, or so I believed, and any confession would just further reinforce that opinion.
I’m pretty sure some of them still consider me the family idiot, but the biggest believer, my stepmom, is no longer with us on earth, so yay, I win.
How pathetic was that last sentence?
Anyway, to return to my story, my stomach bled, and I was afraid to tell anyone what I’d done. For two weeks I walked around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, shielding my pained stomach from any sort of additional tragedy that might befall it, letting it do whatever one’s stomach does when it’s been assaulted with Excedrin. And no one noticed that I was in constant pain, which rather reinforced my idea that no one noticed me at all. It was a sharp pain, but it was also soothing because it reassured me that I at least had control over my own body. I could hurt it if I wanted and I could make it pay.
And it paid. And paid.
A couple of weeks after my Excedrin experiment I was in the garage, folding clothes that had just come out of the laundry. Our garage was behind the house, on a straight line from the back door, and suddenly my stepmother stormed out of the back door and stomped toward me, and the ground shook beneath her as she walked, and her anger was obvious for all to see. She stomped up to me and said, “Stop acting like you’re in pain all the time! You walk around here like there’s something wrong with you! Start acting normal!”
Then she turned and stomped back into the house.
Normal? Suddenly she wanted me to start acting normal?
I straightened up, gingerly, testing my stomach, and told my stomach, “This is what we’ve got to do. You may be in pain, but we have to start acting normal.”
(Note: If you start talking to your stomach as if it’s separate from you, you may have issues.)
I straightened up and I started acting normal. Unfortunately, normal for me was still annoying to her, but I did the best I could with what I had. She would have found fault with me no matter what, and that was just something I had to learn to live with, at least until I turned 18 and could leave home.
I had to learn that no one else could give me the sort of attention I needed, and that it was up to me to find my own way out of the emotional pain. There’s help available – therapy, meds, people who love us and support us, but in the end, it’s up to us to use those tools and find our way out. No one else can do the really hard work for us, the work of finding out who we are and how we can best take care of ourselves. That’s only inside of us, where all the best stuff is anyway.
Same thing if you know someone who’s struggling. You can empathize, and you can offer them options, but you can’t take their pain away by taking it in to yourself, and it won’t help either of you if you do. In order to help them, you have to keep their pain from infecting you. Think of it as a communicable illness, like the flu. If you both get it, who’s going to take care of the sick one? Keep yourself healthy first.